Wedding Band Blues
There was a bar on College St. in Oakland and all the young singers just starting out in the club scene worked a kind of rotation. It was the early 1980s and I was there usually once a month, with a pianist and bass player, as I tried my darndest to wrap my voice around jazz standards, just getting started with my exploration of swinging and improvising. I was green, young, earnest, clueless, and usually mad at myself for not being better. I negotiated with my introverted personality and logged time on the bandstand, learning about charts, counting off tunes, etc., while adding pages to my book. I was also taking various lessons in voice, piano, theory, and composition with a few different teachers, and it was a great educational opportunity to be able to work with musicians who were more experienced than me. The Lobby was a lively joint in those days, and lots of people, friends and strangers, came and went on any given evening.
Neal came in one night and listened for awhile. On the break he introduced himself – a jazz bass player. He and his guitarist friend had a gig at Pier 37 and they needed a singer. This was the beginning of a very long and valued friendship with Neal Heidler. Neal, of the deep voice and half closed eyes, convinced me that I was an okay singer, and this would be a fun thing to do. Turns out it was pretty fun. Brian Pardo was an excellent guitartist and right away, after the gig, the three of us talked about putting together some kind of fusiony jazz band with totally eclectic material. Within a few months, we had a weekly gig at the Bancroft St. Lounge, affectionately referred to by local musicians as “the toilet”. We played tunes by Stevie Wonder and Milton Nascimiento , originals by the pianist, Chris Durbin, “Ana Maria” and “Beatrice” with lyrics I wrote, Chick Corea tunes, etc. The music was challenging and we worked hard at it. At least a handful of people came each week to the gig, many sitting in with the band. We were having a blast working in a dive bar (I remember cockroaches walking up the wall), making ten bucks apiece on a good night. Then somehow, out of nowhere it seemed, we decided to veer off in another direction. We became a wedding band.
They are also called “casual” bands, and yes, it was about the money. No question. It was also about a bunch of nerdy jazz musicians getting the chance to play fantasy rock star. By this time we had been joined by reed guy, Kenny Rosen, and drummer, Tony Manno. We rehearsed every Friday afternoon in Chris Durbin’s house in the Berkeley hills. Together we learned the repertoire of a working dance band. Besides the “dinner jazz” set, we had to select the hottest Top 40 tunes and learn to play them like we meant it. We knew that the gigs we were looking for, wedding receptions, corporate parties, required dancing to rock and R&B tunes. We would get the 45s, and each of us would learn our parts. And I can’t begin to tell you how much fun we had. This was the mid-80s and there was a lot of cool music, and of course we plundered the Motown hits too. Kenny sang the male leads and I got to be Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Tina Turner, Chaka Kahn Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin, and Astrud Gilberto (to name a few). Covering tunes in a wedding band means learning every detail of an arrangement in the attempt to sound as much like the original recording as possible.
We started working on a regular basis, sometimes two gigs in a row on a Saturday, and actually began to have a handle on what we were doing. Jazz musicians have a good work ethic when it comes to learning and playing music, and often there would be little verbal skirmishes on the bandstand between tunes about a questionable chord or lick that someone had just played. The bickering was annoying to me, but the desire and determination to get it right was paying off. We were sounding okay. Here, I must say that this work was an enormous challenge for me. I had sung a great deal of musically complex material in classical and jazz styles, but this music was something else altogether. It’s basically about singing from the second chakra, or forget it. Groove is everything, and the vocals are big, aggressive, and heavily laced with blues. My natural sound was closer to Joni Mitchell than Chaka Kahn, so I began the study of pop singing. I would listen and sing along with every lick of the tunes I was learning, trying to match the vocal sound. I developed an even greater respect for these wonderful singers who had so much soulful energy and rhythmic kick in their big wild voices. I have to honestly admit here, I don’t think I ever really pulled it off all that well, but it must have been good enough since we kept getting gigs. I was also discovering my inner exhibitionist and I would be as energized and extroverted as I could possibly manage, while wearing tight dresses, stiletto heels, and gobs of make-up. I would often drive home from the gig thinking, “Who was that person onstage grinning, dancing, wailing….?” I wince a little now remembering it: “…my doctor said, take it eeeeeeeeeeeeasy, all this lovin’ is much too strong…”
But now let me tell you why I am writing this. Yes, it was an adventure. More importantly, it was also an amazing education. The musicians I was working with were all quite accomplished compared to me. I was definitely the “little sister” musically. I was always asking questions, and they seemed to enjoy giving detailed answers. I wanted to participate, not just stand on the periphery musically. These guys were very generous in giving me answers to my questions, and guiding me through things I didn’t understand. Sure, they teased me and sometimes I felt like a fool. But it was definitely a learn-by-doing activity, and I had to pull my own weight. A few years into the life of the band (called “Between the Lines”), I was writing charts and taking an active part in the musical process, as well as taking over the booking of the band. We would often get cassette tapes in the mail from the bride and groom of a song they wanted us to play for their first dance. Sometimes my job was to transcribe the tune from the recording to chart form, accurate enough to be played for the first time, unrehearsed, at the upcoming wedding reception. It was so satisfying to present the chart and have the tune played the way it was supposed to be. That, and many other practical skills, became part of the classroom side of this experience. Learning such a range of material in itself is very educational. These bands are supposed to imitate, and that imitation was instructional. The musicians I worked with were meticulous about correct chord changes, tempos, grooves, sound gear, all the details that make the music good. They pushed me out of my comfort zone in a way that I will always appreciate. Fortunately, we really liked each other too and often socialized together apart from playing gigs.
Between the Lines played together for about eight years total, though the personnel changed quite a bit over the years. Everyone had continued playing jazz throughout the life of the band, and various original members drifted off to other things and were replaced. It stopped being fun when it got to be easy to throw together a pick up band just for the money. The musical excitement eventually faded and it was time to move on, not to mention we all got older. I began to notice that we were as old as the parents of the bride and groom, and that just didn’t seem right. By 1991 the band sort of evaporated. I continued to work with other bands as a freelance vocalist, some on a regular basis, but the naïve enthusiasm of the early years with Between the Lines was a thing of the past. I don’t know if there are as many of these bands working the private party circuit now as there were during the 80s and 90s. There must be some, but I think the DJ thing really took hold and was also more economical than paying a band. I have grown into other incarnations of my musical life over the years and that all seems like a long time ago, but I remember it with much fondness and pride. That we were able to pull it off at all is amazing, and that we held together as a working band as long as we did is a marvel. None of us started out as rock musicians, and none of us has ended up as one. But we sure had fun living out the fantasy, and I became a better musician in the process.
My advice to any young singer who wants a life in music: take whatever opportunity comes along. Bands, choirs, open mics, parties, karaoke, back-up singing, musical theater, anything, you name it – it’s the real education in music. You can learn a lot in music schools, and from private instructors, but actually making music in a wide variety of ways is the greatest teacher.